Sunday, May 23, 2004

Grads face uncertainty

Economy, war, job market rank
high on list of concerns

Recently The Enquirer asked seniors from area high schools and colleges to share their thoughts as they approach graduation. Nearly 450 local students responded. While this project was an informal conversation rather than a scientific survey, it yielded an intriguing look at the Class of 2004.

Our questions were straightforward; some of the students' answers were profound. In the spring of 2004, it is no simple America the graduates are entering into.

Like graduates before them, their major concerns were personal and predictable. Issues related to personal success outpaced national concerns by a three to one margin. They worried about doing well in college, choosing the right major, finding a job after graduation and liking it enough to stick with it. But the realities of the outside world were not lost on them. "Our economy has been down. We're young and going out into the job market, and a lot of us are worried," said Conner High School senior Alexandra Geimeier, who will major in nursing in college. "I chose the medical field because I think that's where the jobs are."

Downsizing and outsourcing are part of the students' vocabulary, sometimes because the topics have affected their own families. Hyde Park resident Ben Koth, who is completing an MBA program at Xavier University, said the world has changed significantly since he completed his bachelor's degree in 1997. "Back then, you just needed a heartbeat to get a job that paid $40,000 right after graduation," he said. "Now if you want to make more than that, you've got to do significantly more."

While visions of unmade beds and late assignments still dance in their parents' minds, the Class of 2004 has, in reality, been one of the most regimentally taught and thoroughly tested of all generations. For good or bad, national education reform reached mightily into their classrooms, shaping their learning with state-driven curricula, all-powerful proficiency tests and rising college entrance requirements. Overall, our survey respondents said they worry about failure and do not want to disappoint. "We fear just screwing up," said Jay Homan, a Walnut Hills High School senior. "I want to live up to people's expectations. When people say you'll go on to do great things, I don't know exactly what they mean, so it's harder to achieve it."

Most responses were decidedly serious, but the lighter side of teenage life occasionally peeked through. One Conner High School student simply wanted more time on the football field, and a Mariemont High School senior was most concerned with finding the right woman. Mother of Mercy senior Paige Luipold-Evans labeled her greatest concern as "having to pick out clothes to wear since I won't have a uniform any more." But she admitted she and her classmates worry about college costs, finding jobs and the troubled world around them. "When I talk to my parents and grandparents, I think there are a lot more concerns today about jobs, the economy and people just not caring about each other."

Better than a third of the respondents did name a social issue as their greatest concern. The war in Iraq and against terrorism led all other issues by a large margin, followed by the economy, loss of jobs for Americans and deteriorating world relations in general. Social justice issues that may have rung through their parents' adolescence in the 1960s and 1970s - poverty, world hunger, the environment - were rarely named by the Class of 2004. Interestingly, a small but passionate number of the computer-savvy bunch worried most about technology damaging the quality of everyday life - even as they described it in the abbreviated jargon of instant messaging.

This year's grads come of age during a presidential election year, and the vast majority of our respondents plan to vote this fall. Of our respondents - again, not scientifically sampled - 193 have registered as Republicans, 107 as Democrats and 37 as independents, Libertarians or members of other parties. Being underage was the major reason the others haven't registered.

Most of those who are registered say they plan to vote for their party's nominee. Some, like Susan Kipp of Mariemont High School who registered as a Democrat, says she is still deciding whether she'll vote, and for whom. "I don't know enough background on either party to vote," she says. "The election isn't exactly something that's on my mind right now. It's not that I don't want to know, but it's depressing. I don't like conflict. I want happy thoughts right now."

Like many other respondents, Kristi Watkins, a senior at Conner High School, said her views do not line up neatly with either political party. She favors legal abortion and supports gay rights, but she is also a fiscal conservative who worries about Social Security funds running out. By November, she is determined to settle on a candidate. "I think, especially as a female, the privilege of voting is amazing," she says. "We females fought for that. There's no way we should miss the opportunity to vote."

We asked the graduates if they would consider military service. Better than 95 percent of the females said they would not - although many offered praise for American soldiers. Better than three in four males also said they would not join the military, although some said they would go if drafted or if the war expanded and their country needed them. A handful said they had already joined, some set to report to basic training days after their graduation.

Robin Freeman, a graduate of Life Skills Center of Cincinnati, an alternative education program, will enter the Air Force this summer and plans to be a mechanic. "I've wanted to join for the last six years," she said. "I'm willing to fight for other people to be free - I'm anxious to go."

A thousand factors went into shaping this year's class, who grew up in an age of quickly changing technology, vast leaps of information, significant advances in medicine and a fair share of political scandal. Most said television is their prime source of information, followed by newspapers, the Internet and family members - especially mom. They also named their mother as the most significant influence on their life, followed by their father, grandparents and friends. Spider-Man and artist Salvador Dali each received one vote for being top influences.

The students' reading habits were clearly shaped by their literature classes. Like many graduates before them, they still find power in To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men and Brave New World, although the Harry Potter series picked up a handful of votes as well.

Overall, the students believe they are well-prepared to enter the adult world, and their responses generally revealed a thoughtful and knowledgeable - if noticeably sober - group of graduates.

Like the generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s, the graduates have been tempered by war, inspired by heroes, touched by national tragedies, inspired by a world of innovation and - like every graduate before them - itching to take their place in the world.

Krista Ramsey is a member of the Enquirer Editorial Board.

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